New guidance from the Scottish Land Commission places wellbeing as a central consideration when assessing the business case for developing vacant or derelict land.

Decisions about what to do with a vacant site, including if and when to dispose of it, are most often made on the basis of fairly narrow cost-benefit analysis. Without anticipated financial returns to the owner, nothing happens. But according to the Commission's Guidance on Assessing the Full Economic Benefits of the Productive Reuse of Land, an assessment framework that takes account of wider social, environmental and community benefits will be crucial to changing Scotland’s approach to land reuse.

There are an estimated 11,000 hectares of vacant and derelict land across Scotland, and much of it in areas with the greatest poverty and deprivation. The proposed framework, based on a report by Biggar Economics, places wellbeing at the centre of the decision-making processes providing financial and economic impacts to evidence the effect of wellbeing outcomes.

The guidance explains that although financial measures are most commonly used when quantifying the costs and benefits associated with land use, "The issue with this is that many of Scotland’s vacant and derelict sites are in areas where there may be limited commercial development potential and so financial analysis can provide a weak business case... However, these sites often have a wider social value, with potential to deliver a wide range of benefits if the measures used are broader than financial returns on investment."

It continues: "There are almost always additional benefits that cannot be captured in terms of jobs, GVA [gross value added], taxation or financial benefits but are important to society, communities and the environment and can justifiably be considered when assessing site options."

The guidance recommends using the National Performance Framework (NPF) that already exists to encourage a broader way of thinking about the benefits that can be achieved from reusing vacant and derelict land, and how these can be measured. 

Originally developed in 2007 and relaunched in 2018, the NPF has been embedded in legislation through the Community Empowerment Act 2015, meaning that current and successive Scottish ministers must regularly and publicly report on progress towards its outcomes and review them at least every five years. 

"Aligning this guidance with the national framework for economic, social, cultural and environmental value ensures that those with an interest in reusing a piece of vacant and derelict land can articulate the broadest range of benefits to a diverse group of interested parties, in a way that reflects national priorities", the Commission states.

It further maintains that a similar approach should be extended to all decisions about land use, recognising the importance of land and its management to the health, wealth and overall wellbeing of the population.

Shona Glenn, the Commission's head of Policy and Research, commented: "This is not all about private ownership and profit. Forty per cent of land on the vacant and derelict land register is owned by the public sector. In urban areas particularly, fixing dereliction could play a major role in addressing health inequalities and improving wellbeing.

"Bringing derelict urban sites back into use could help us provide new homes, space for growing food in towns and cities, green spaces for people to enjoy the outdoors and an opportunity to improve biodiversity in urban areas. Some sites may even have the potential to generate renewable energy.

"We think the time has come to update and develop the traditional approaches to assessing the benefits of reusing land to reflect the broader perspective on economic wellbeing and properly reflect the way our environment affects every aspect of our lives."